ProPublica’s data page has been a frequent favorite of mine for hard-news related map visualizations. I think they’re doing a great job at displaying data they glean via investigative reporting techniques in ways that will help simplify the complexity of the data without losing the gravity of the issue. However, that doesn’t mean every map they make is without fault.
In scanning the data page this weekend, I found “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas (*while water supplies last)” by Al Shaw, Abrahm Lustgarten, Jeff Larson and Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica, and Haisam Hussein (published June 2, 2015). I previously worked as an environmental journalist, so I clicked on this article hoping to find some cool visualizations of just how greedy we’re being about water these days.
When I first opened the page I played around with the slider below the map and felt that seeing the presence of population as well as the water levels of Lake Mead change in direct response was a very effective way to communicate how the actions of humans are affecting the landscape. My action as a human directly controlled the simulated landscape of this map, giving me both a sense of responsibility and control over the environment. This kind of effectiveness is what I was looking for in the map, and what I found I always failed at communicating when I tried to cover these topics with just words when I was a print journalist.
Here’s a screenshot of the slider at the lefthand side of the map, which visualizes Las Vegas before it expanded (note the small presence of population) and when Lake Mead wasn’t being used as a primary water source (note the high water level).
Here’s a screenshot of the slider at the righthand side of the map, which visualizes Las Vegas closer to present day (note the expanded population and after Lake Mead has been depleted of significant amounts of water after years of being used by the city (note the low water level).
My main disappointment with this map is that the timeline of events is located beneath the interactive map. I feel like the designers of the map could have easily incorporated these specific events as pop-ups within the slider. It’s possible that they were trying to be conservative with their design and felt that a pop-up would distract from the fluidity of the map. However, I argue against this because the main point of the article and map is to connect how specific actions taken by the Las Vegas government have put a strain on Lake Mead. I would like to be able to plot those actions and immediately see their results on the map. By having to take the time to scroll up and down on the page and plot the events myself on the slider, I lose retention of what I’ve just read. As a result, the information about the Las Vegas government’s actions is less effective when I finally figure out when they occurred and view the results on the map.